So there we were…
…sitting with our mission administrator in a building on the harsh edge of the Sahara desert, the dusty winds howling outside, when Stan surprisingly found himself unable to hold back a flood of tears. We were nearing the end of our second term as full-time missionaries in a tiny Muslim African nation, and suddenly realized we were nearing the end of our emotional “rope.”
It was as if we looked down and found our legs were missing. But not because one of the local crocodiles suddenly bit them off. Rather because one hundred nibbling “ducks” had been at work on us while we were too distracted to notice.
But the signs and symptoms of burnout were all there. Stan felt overwhelmed in his role as a missionary physician. For some time he had been unable to sleep, or would wake with terrifying, violent nightmares punctuating his dreams. He had been having frequent crying spells, and had lost interest in activities that he formerly loved to do. A notable cynicism and anger had been creeping into his comments, particularly those about Africans. He had gradually been withdrawing from all interactions with people, even those in his family who could help him, and preferred to work instead with inanimate objects out in the tool shed. This second term alone he had lost 25 pounds he could not afford to lose.
Weight was not the only thing Stan had lost. Over time, he had come to the point of complete exhaustion. Physically he was always tired. Emotionally he had buried so many losses that he had classic “compassion fatigue,” as well as PTSD from various traumatic events. Mentally he could not concentrate. Spiritually he had lost hope.
In response to the diminishing staff and increased workload on the field, Stan had simply tried to work harder, unable to say “no” to the great needs. Inevitably this led to a dark sense of being trapped, with no way out. He felt like a failure and an “imposter” in his multiple roles, and was ready to abandon everything. Yet he feared disappointing his family, his team, his supporters, and his God if he were to leave it all. We soon found our family jetting back to the U.S. for an extended furlough, future unknown.
How did we get from serving in this deep darkness to being able to serve with enduring joy? It took blood, sweat, and tears. (Well, ok, maybe not blood.) We needed some serious R & R & R: refreshment, reflection, and restructuring. First we halted all ministries and started a wilderness season of rest, practicing Sabbaths, reading good books, and taking seminary classes. In one-on-one counseling and at an intensive care retreat we identified multiple false beliefs we had been embracing and began the work of replacing them with truth. In front of the mirror, we practiced saying “No.” We let ourselves finally grieve the countless losses we had experienced. We attended as many Member Care training programs as possible.
It took time before we began to “care again about the things we care about.” But eventually Stan found true shalom and returning joy. The well that had gone completely dry in the desert is now replenished, and we’ve been equipped with the right tools for drawing from it. We enjoy our ministry now, viewing ourselves as formerly thirsty wanderers helping other thirsty wanderers find refreshment and life again.